Wanted: a few more Cynthia Coopers


Let’s say I and the rest of my crack IS team built you a fabulous new database that’s supposed to keep better track of your company’s finances. I promised you it would make the task of accounting much easier – point, click, and voila, you’ve balanced your books.

Or maybe not. Turns out I let a few glitches get by. For instance, the software can’t calculate what you owe in bills each month. You have to work that out by hand. And, oh yeah, it can’t merge with any of your other divisions’ accounts.

What’s surprising is that you’ve been suffering in silence since 1991. Not to worry though. I can fix those things – and it shouldn’t cost you more than, say, $8 million.

That’s pretty much the situation today at the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, where officials are grappling with an ancient GST accounting system built in 1991 that has an awful lot of holes, some of them apparently serious enough to hinder the collection of the tax, according to an internal CCRA report that was made public earlier this year. Officials in Ottawa decided to fix things in 2000, but the problems persist to this day.

So what you have is an important department in the office that oversees Canada’s tax revenue using software so faulty that it has made its primary job that much tougher to carry out. For 12 years.

That might sound incredible to the average Canadian, but I bet you’re somewhat more jaded. Leave your cubicle, talk to one of your peers, and you’re bound to hear tales of chaotic IT projects with massive lifespans, few results, and leaving few with the appetite to haul away the wreckage. I know I have.

And don’t let my GST example stand as an attack on the public sector. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on what side of the fence you sit, it’s harder for them to hide; their budget numbers almost always find their way into the light of day. What’s more worrisome are the private sector projects we don’t hear about. One wonders how many horror stories could be told, today, in IT departments across Corporate Canada. Maybe you’re in the midst of one right now.

Now, imagine for a moment if Cynthia Cooper worked at your office. She’s the woman who walked into the boardroom offices of WorldCom last year and informed them that company officials had falsified their profit statement by US$3.8 billion, something it was hiding through phoney bookeeping. She’s also, along with fellow whistle-blowers Sherron Watkins of Enron and Colleen Rowley of the FBI, one of Time magazine’s persons of the year for 2002.

Few of us will ever find ourselves in such a high-stakes position. But be honest – how easy would it be for any of us to stand up in front of our peers and employers and, in the face of any organizational lunacy, say, “This is wrong – either you fix it, I fix it, or we’re through.” The fact that so many IT projects still go bad is a testament that it’s very difficult indeed.

And this isn’t about sticking it to the higher-ups – Cooper still works at WorldCom today, and what she did may ultimately save the company. She was able to see the big picture, and acted on it. In that sense, by coming clean and revealing the internal ugliness, as tough as it was on her and who knows how many innocent bystanders, she was looking out for the company’s best interests.

Sure it’s late in the year, but maybe we should resolve to bring a little more Cynthia Cooper into our working world, and try to fix those lingering, emperor-has-no-clothes undertakings. Or better yet, simply nip them in the bud. Doing so is in all our best interests.